The Great Reading Project
It is finished. With much moaning, plenty of avoidance, and at times even a penitential spirit, I have fought my way through 438 pages of Andrea Levy’s Small Island. And you know what? I’m glad I did.
The small island of the title refers to Jamaica and England – and I think it could also refer to us as individuals, we who work at keeping ourselves apart from others.
One of the ways we do so, and a major theme of the book is prejudice. ‘Small Island’ is rife with it. It is demonstrated by the Americans against the blacks (the ‘n’ word is used jarringly and often) by the British against ‘the darkies’, and also against other Brits of a lower class, and among the Jamaicans against other Jamaicans with a darker skin or a less refined accent.
Each one of the characters (except Arthur, a mute father-in-law) exhibits prejudice or harsh judgement. Each of them, in fact, is unpleasant, unsympathetic. It takes a bold and confident author to allow her characters to be who they are and not endow them with some borrowed amiability.
While I often wanted to put the book down for good, now that I’ve reached the end, I’m really glad I persevered. Taking the story as a whole rather than four chopped up narratives, I can appreciate Levy’s skill at capturing dialect, invoking a mood, unveiling a character. There are also beautiful passages of prose, and a few very humorous moments such as this:
This was war. There was hardship I was prepared for – bullet, bomb, and casual death – but not for the torture of missing cow-foot stew, not for the persecution of living without curried shrimp or pepper-pot soup. I was not ready, I was not trained to eat food that was prepared in a pan of boiling water, the sole purpose of which was to rid it of taste and texture. How the English built empires when their armies marched on nothing but mush should be one of the wonders of the world. I thought it would be combat that would make me regret having volunteered, not boiled-up potatoes, boiled-up vegetables – grey and limp on the plate like they had been eaten once before. Why the English come to cook everything by this method? Lucky they kept that boiling business as their national secret and did not insist that the people of their colonies stop frying and spicing up their food. (pg 105,106)
I didn’t like the structure of the novel. Each character narrates his own portion, sometimes in the past, sometimes the present. One event might be told twice from two different perspectives, which admittedly was interesting. More than halfway through the book, the fourth character appeared. You’d think that would be too late to have an impact on the plot, but apart from his own story which didn’t encourage me to hold him in affection, his appearance was when the story really took off for me, and I started to root for the sorry cast of characters.
Glad I am to have come to the end of it, and glad I am to have read it.
So far so good for the GRP!
Next up: Gift from the sea by Anne Morrow Lindbergh (replacing her Bring me a unicorn)
Inferno – Dante
Heart of the matter – Graham Greene
The Snakepit – Sigrid Undset
Sound and the fury – William Faulkner
Man and woman – Alice Von Hildebrand
Invisible man – Ralph Ellison
Masterful Monk (series) – Owen Francis Dudley
Shepherd’s castle – George MacDonald
Last light – Terri Blackstock
84 Charing Cross Road – Helene Hanff
Bring me a unicorn – Anne Morrow Lindbergh
Unlocked – Karen Kingsbury